June 25, 2021

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The excellent automotive artisans1

N.J. slot car company sees surge in sales, driven by nostalgia and COVID

Frank Tiessen was 10 years old and still living in his native Germany when he got his first “Carrera,” which in Europe of the 1970s could mean only one thing: a set of electric slot cars and track by toy maker Josef Neuhierl GmbH & Company, whose Carrera brand was already a household name synonymous with slot car racing after its founding in the Bavarian city of Fürth in 1963.

Today, Tiessen is the 57-year-old CEO of Carrera Revell of Americas, a subsidiary founded in 2005 in Cranberry and now headquartered in East Brunswick, which distributes the four-inch-long, highly detailed replicas of Porsches, Fords and Ferraris throughout the United States and other parts of North and South America.

“If you told me that one day I would work for that company and they would actually pay me to play with that toy, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Tiessen, who has a test track at the office, said in a recent phone interview from his home in Edgewater Park.

Nearly half a century after Tiessen got his first set, and following a lull in their popularity among Generation Z and millennials, slot cars are roaring back, driven by nostalgia for pre-internet toys and games, and fueled by the spare time that families have on their hands thanks to restrictions on other types of entertainment imposed under the coronavirus pandemic.

“People are stuck at home and they’re looking for something fun to do,” said Joe Correa, the 76-year-old owner of New Jersey Nostalgia Hobby, a shop he opened in Scotch Plains 43 years ago that sells slot cars and sets, and has a track for racing.

Tiessen said Carrera sales have been burning rubber since the start of the pandemic last spring. While he declined to provide dollar figures or numbers of sets sold, he said the company’s volume was up 75{184722e0e226bcc33313b73fd463388417f454aa3a20797559fe2c0007fff18a} in 2020 compared to 2019. The trend has continued into this spring, Tiessen said, with March’s monthly volume 150{184722e0e226bcc33313b73fd463388417f454aa3a20797559fe2c0007fff18a} above the same period one year earlier, when the pandemic had only just begun keeping families cooped up.

“March was our most successful month in the company’s history,” said Tiessen, adding that inventory of the Chinese-made cars and track could not keep pace with orders. “March, April came around and we were completely wiped out.”

Basically, slot cars are powered by a small electric current fed by household outlet that runs through metal rails embedded in plastic track and transferred to the 2- or 3-inch cars through metal contact “brushes” fixed to their undercarriage and wired to an electric motor. The motor turns gears that spin the rear axel of the car, like a tiny Tesla or Chevy Volt (though full-sized E-cars run on chargeable batteries, not electrified tracks).

“We are the original electric car,” Tiessen said of the slot car industry, which in the U.S. has also included brands like Tyco, a company founded in New Jersey and later acquired by toy giant Mattel, and Aurora AFX.

Slot cars have continued to evolve, with the latest, “digital” generation of cars now programmable to perform with more sophistication. However, slots date back more than a century, to their introduction in the United States by New York City-based model railroad maker Lionel Corporation as early as 1912.

Carrera of America, Inc. slot car. Monday, April 12, 2021 Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media

Business booms for slot car company during pandemic

A minion from the “Dispicable Me” film series drives one of Carrera Revell of America’s most whimsical slot cars. Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media

Slot cars do not steer or brake. Rather, a plastic “blade” that protrudes from the front of the undercarriage fits into a narrow slot in the track that runs between the rails and guides the car around curves and down straightaways, at speeds that Tiessen said would be the equivalent of 360 mph for their size. Pulling a trigger on a hand-held controller increases the flow of electricity to the rails and thus the speed of the car. Easing up on the trigger slows or stops the car.

The straight, curved and other sections of track that snap together to form a race circuit are black, sometimes with road markings to mimic the real thing, and guide rails that really do function to keep cars on the track. Too much juice heading into a turn can send a car and its half-inch-tall plastic driver tumbling end over end off the track, and even off the dining room table. And a key to slot car racing — not unlike the real thing — is taking turns with as much speed as possible while staying in control.

Overpasses, miniature grand stands, arches, observation towers and other trackside accoutrements lend visual excitement. And famed real-life venues like NASCAR’s Sebring International Raceway in Florida or the Nürburgring Formula 1 course in Germany are mimicked in their layouts by slot car hobbyists and manufacturers.

More recent, digital sets by Carrera, Scalextric and other makers can accommodate up to six cars at a time on a track, thanks to crossing slots that allow lane changes and passing by cars that are digitally programmed to respond to a specific controller regardless of the slot it’s riding in.

Business booms for slot car company during pandemic

A new line of slot cars by Carrera Revell of Americas allows young racers to design and build their own racers with Lego blocks.Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media

Slot cars come in various sizes, or “gauges,” but the two most common are 1/64 — meaning one-sixty-fourth the size of an actual car, or about the size of a Hot Wheels or Matchbox car; and the larger 1/32, which is Carrera’s standard gauge because of the level of detail it permits.

For example, among the company’s new releases for 2021 is a Ford GT 40 MKII “Ken Miles No.1,” a miniature dead ringer for the famed endurance race car driven by Miles and teammate Denny Hulme in the 24 Hours of LeMans in 1966, a race dramatized in the 2019 film “Ford V Ferrari.”

Business booms for slot car company during pandemic

Frank Tiessen, President at Carrera of America, Inc. looks through one of the racetracks on display in the East Brunswick office. Monday, April 12, 2021 Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media

Correa, the Nostalgia Hobby shop owner, began selling slot cars and vintage toys as an offshoot of his antiques business. At one time, he said, 15 of the 21 towns in Union County had at least one hobby shop with a slot track. Now, he said, his is the only one left that he’s aware of.

He’s kept the cramped shop closed to visitors during the pandemic, though he’s been as busy as ever with online sales and curbside pickups. Lately, he’s been thinking of reopening the shop on a limited basis to let clients resume racing on the track.

“My kids all grew up in here,” Correa said of the shop. “Some of their friends still race here, and some of them are in their early 30s.”

Slot cars are not the only pastime from the past that’s seen a resurgence during the pandemic. The same combination of nostalgia and limited family entertainment options has been attributed to the revived the popularity of old-fashioned board games like Monopoly, with its Atlantic City landmarks, and retro toys like Easy Bake Ovens.

“I think it’s part of being human,” said Tiessen. “In a time of crisis you go back to a time where you felt more carefree, and you felt a little more secure, and there is a nostalgia aspect to it.”

Dr. Andrew Abeyta, an assistant professor of psychology Rutgers University in Camden, has studied the causes and effects of nostalgia, broadly defined as a sentimental longing for the past. He agreed with Tiessen’s lay diagnosis of the slot car resurgence.

“I would say there are probably practical considerations with people just being at home and being bored,” Abeyta said. “But I think it’s safe to say that because of the nature of the pandemic, we might be drawn more strongly to things from our past.”

Business booms for slot car company during pandemic

A line of Super Mario vehicles driven by the video game icon is Carrera’s biggest seller.Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media

And in this particular case, Abeyta said a parent’s or grandparent’s nostalgia for powering their electric race car around a track can help families bond.

“We found that reflecting on a nostalgic memory can actually inspire people to want to bond with others, and so I think that could be going on, too,” Abeyta said. “People are looking around and they’ve got a lot more free time, kids are around the house, and they want to find a way to bond with their children, maybe create special memories with their children. And they think, ‘What was special about my childhood? What was I really excited about?’ And this could be the (slot) car track.”

Despite the nostalgia component, Tiessen said Carrera’s the most popular models are not the vintage Mustangs or Aston Martin DB-5s of grownups’ dreams. Rather, he said, the company’s best seller is the Super Mario Odyssey Scooter, which leads a whole line of vehicles driven by the cartoon video game icon, which Tiessen said demonstrates the company’s adaptability and appeal to younger customers.

“The kids can play with a Super Mario and Dad can play with his Porsche,” Tiessen said. “And they race each other.”

Carrera Revell of America's Ford GT 40 Mk II

Carrera Revell of America’s Ford GT 40 Mk II “Ken Miles No. 1” is a new offering for 2021. It’s a 1/32-scale replica of the car that won the 24 Hours at Le Mans endurance race in 1966, dramatized in the 2019 film, “Ford V Ferrari.” It’s $63.99, but won’t be available until October, according to Carrera.Carrera Revell of Americas

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Steve Strunsky may be reached at [email protected].